by Shlomo Brody
Following the Six Day War, the Orthodox rabbinate promulgated a ban on Jews ascending the Temple Mount. This decision, along with the
continued effective control of the site by the Muslim Wakf, has severely limited Jewish civilian presence to the point that many Jews and non-Jews mistakenly ignore its significance to Judaism. The recent attempt to rectify this misconception by organizing group visits to the Mount has ignited a passionate legal debate.
Several biblical commandments regulated entrance to the various sections of the Beit Hamikdash, the ancient Temple, including the
establishment of a guard system to enforce these rules (Numbers 18:1-4). The Torah (Leviticus 19:30) further commanded a general reverence for the Temple, interpreted by the sages to include respectful behavior within permissible areas, such as not carrying a stick or wallet, wearing leather shoes or walking on the sacred territory for mundane purposes (Brachot 54a).
Medieval commentators debated whether these restrictions became dormant following the Temple’s destruction.
Rabad (12th century, Provence) contended that unlike the rest of Eretz Yisrael, which retained its sanctity, the Temple Mount was profaned by its non-Jewish conquerors (Ramban Makot 19a) and lost its sacred status (Beit Habehira 6:14). Rabbi Menahem Hameiri (Shevuot 16a)
understood this position to allow for walking on the Temple Mount, and further reports that Jews have historically followed this position. Indeed, as recently noted by Gedalia Meyer and Henoch Messner (Hakirah 10), certain talmudic stories (Makot 24b) and medieval travel chronicles indicate that some Jews did ascend the Temple Mount until Muslim conquerors banned non-Muslim entrance in the 12th century.
The position, however, was opposed by Maimonides, who insisted that the entire space retains its sanctity, and further contended that, theoretically, sacrifices may continue to be offered even without the structure of the Temple. Indeed, Rabbi Zvi Chajes has noted that several talmudic passages indicate that many Temple rites, particularly the Pessah sacrifice, continued into late antiquity (Darchei Hora’a p. 261).
Rabbi Tzvi Kalischer, inspired by messianic aspirations, attempted to renew such activity in the 19th century (Drishat Zion). Yet his proposal was sharply dismissed by figures like Rabbi Jacob Etlinger, who contended that these sacrifices were impermissible without finding the altar’s exact location, priests with proven pedigree, and various Temple apparatuses (Binyan Zion 1).
Nonetheless, Maimonides ruling demanding continual reverence for the spot, including entry restrictions (Beit Habehira 7:7), was widely accepted by medieval (Kaftor Veferah Chapter 6) and modern (MB 561:5) authorities. Rabbi Avraham Kook further contended that even Rabad believed that the area remained holy, but that one only received a punishment for entrance when the actual Temple was present (Mishpat Kohen 96). As Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron noted, these laws also prohibit tour guides from encouraging unrestricted non-Jewish tourist visits to the Mount (Techumin 11).
Yet the sages clearly permitted entrance into some sacred areas following appropriate ritual preparation, including immersion in a
mikve (Kelim 1:8), even for people who had contracted impurity from contact with corpses (Beit Habehira 3:15). Moreover, many areas within the current rectangular Temple Mount complex, which was expanded in the Herodian era to about 150,000 square meters, clearly include sections that were not within the original Temple area, which formed a square with sides of approximately 250 meters (Midot 2:1). Maimonides himself indicates that he walked and prayed on the permissible areas when he visited Israel in 1165 (Igrot Harambam I, p. 224).
Two 16th-century scholars, Rabbis David Ibn Zimra (Shu”t Radbaz #691) and Yosef D’Trani (Maharit, Tzurat Habayit) both attempted to
delineate the exact Temple location and permitted Jews to walk on certain areas of the Mount. Yet their calculations are highly disputable, and this uncertainly led many scholars, including Rabbi Yisrael of Shlov, leader of Jerusalem’s “Old Yishuv” settlers in the 19th century (Pe’at Hashulhan 2:11), to prohibit entrance to the Temple Mount (which anyway was regularly banned by the ruling authorities). This position was adopted by many scholars following the Six Day War, including rabbis Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer YD 5:26), Yitzhak Weiss (Minhat Yitzhak 5:1) and Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 10:1).
Others contest that this has led to a spiritual neglect of the sacred space. Most prominently, Rabbi Shlomo Goren dedicated a book, Har Habayit, to determining the permissible areas of entry. While the efforts of Rabbis Mordechai Eliahu (Techumin 3) and She’ar Yashuv Hacohen to build a synagogue on the Mount have been thwarted, other scholars, including Rabbis Nahum Rabinovitch and Haim Druckman, have recently advocated Jewish entry (with strict halachic preparation) onto areas which they claim are indisputably outside the restricted areas. Yet other religious Zionist figures, including rabbis Avraham Shapira and Shlomo Aviner, have opposed such trips, contending that the Jewish people are spiritually unprepared for the Temple’s holiness, thus adding further dispute to this revered site.
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.